The Turncoat!

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Traitor Mechanic

Let me start out with a rant about how this is not a mechanic… no that won’t do, as I want you to actually listen to what I have to say on this point…. Humm, what if I said that I am a traitor to all game designers by thinking this is not a mechanic… no, that won’t do either… THIS IS NOT A BOARD GAME MECHANIC!!! (I am joking)


The traitor “mechanic” is actually just a simple variant of the variable player powers or player roles mechanic(s) designed to create an asymmetric player role whose purpose is to instigate conflict and add intrigue to the game. There I said it…


In all fairness to the many excellent game designers who have done really great work making sure that this could be a fun and interesting part of their games. It has become a named mechanic in its own right.

How it works

You make a card that tells a player they are a traitor who needs to make sure that the game is lost, and you are done! Drops mic…

If only it were that simple. The first and hardest step is to first create a good flowing and functional, out of perfect balance, less than always winnable, player vs. environment style of cooperative (Co-op) game. This step should not be considered complete until the playtest groups lose 1 out of every 3 games and the playtesters start blaming each other for throwing the last game. It also helps if they talk about the last game the next day, without being asked about it. Then and only then can you feel good about giving one of them the chance to really do it. Wait! That is not the full story either, but it is one way to approach designing a traitor role into a game.

Okay all joking aside

The insider threat is one of the most powerful and dangerous threat types in the world. Traitors are among the most feared and hated roles a person can take on. Betrayal is devastating because only someone you trust can do it, you can not be betrayed by an enemy, only a friend. The act of being lied to or deceived is one that is not easily forgiven, and the more spiteful the betrayal the harder it is to forgive (even in a game form). For these reasons, many people will not play games that have backstabbing, deception, or traitor mechanics. All joking aside, you should consider adding an element of comedy to any game that has these mechanics to lighten the mood.

Building the traitor mechanic can be logically divided into three main parts, some easier than others to design. Adding the player role, adding mechanics and rules that help to protect the traitor’s secret identity, and making and keeping the game fun to lose. Each of these parts becomes progressively harder to implement in a game. It is already hard enough keeping a game fun to win.

Note: The fact is that most games can’t handle the addition of such a powerful asymmetric player role. It will outright break most Co-op games, and while a game might always be fun for the traitor, the real trick with designing this mechanic is to make sure the game is still fun for the rest of the losers… I mean players.

So, first let’s make sure we have a game that can support the traitor mechanic, then move on to looking at how to implement the mechanic into a game. The types of games that can handle this mechanic will have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • Player Roles
  • Cooperative Play
  • Player Interaction
  • Story Generating (unique to each play session)
  • High Replay Value
  • Board Game Artificial Intelligence (BG-AI)
  • Uncertain Outcome (right up to the end)

Player Roles

This can be as simple as just giving the two types of players different titles, such as soldiers & spies. This is closely related to but not the same thing as creating variable or asymmetric player powers. In fact, most of the time the players don’t need any individualized or unique special powers that differ from one another. In many ways, the traitor role needs to only have the same powers (action options) as all the other players. As soon as a traitor uses a traitor only power, they will be discovered.

This is one point in the design when you need to carefully consider the difficulties of adding any extra or unneeded complexity into the game. Variable or asymmetric player powers are fun to play but difficult to design and balance. If this is your first game or first time diving into the world of player roles or traitor mechanics I would advise you not to make things any more complicated than you absolutely have to.


Design Tip: Design is progressive, just like any other art forms. The first thing you paint is rarely the best thing you paint. Keep your first few game designs small and simple, try to focus in on just one core mechanic. This will not only make designing it a great learning experience but will also make it easier to finish. Finishing or completing a game design is by far the most important act you as a designer will ever do.


Cooperative Play & Player Interaction

The game needs to revolve around a central challenge that the players as a team must overcome or defeat. The main thing here is to give the players way and reasons to interact with both each other and each other’s characters in the game. Building reasons for players to talk to each other and also to interact within the game is one thing that makes playing this type of games fun, but it is not restricted to co-op games. This means that for co-op games it is even more vital to give the players ways to help each other in-game and not just actions that generally help the team win. These two ideas are linked, but both still express different ideas, one being the in-game gameplay actions and mechanics for the player’s characters and the other some in-game and some out-of-game interpersonal interactions between the players.

Note: Theme is always important to this mechanic. Some personal struggles are better than others for adding the traitor, but just about any theme can have a traitor… but it will not always make sense to the players when the group of well-known superheroes has a traitor for no good reason. I like games like Battlestar Galactica just a bit better than say Dead of Winter, for this reason, the traitor needs to have a good reason for betraying the other players. And the worst reason is because they got the role card randomly handed to them. These two games handle the traitor in different ways and each uses wonderfully clever mechanics, and with the right group, both are great fun.

Story Generating

This is not to be confused with the game’s story or theme in any way. This is the unique story that is told by what happens in one game session both to the players because of event driven game content and by the player’s actions, interactions, and meaningful choices. This is the tale as told by the players after the game is over and they are talking to a friend about the game the next day. While having a well-crafted in-game narrative is important for many games, this is not the focus of crafting story generating mechanics and meaningful choices to help the players craft their own story within the game’s narrative.

High Replay Value

If the game has good story generating mechanics it is also likely to have a high replay value. But these two things do not always go hand-in-hand. The main difference is that once a team of players has played the game when they play it again, does the story change? Does every game feel fun by play very similar every time it has been played? Adding randomness in the right places gives a variance to a game, but adding it in the wrong place will ruin it.

Rather than just adding a random element inside the gameplay, one option is to overfill the game with options and then limit each game to only a few of those options at random before play starts. This might be scenario cards, the game might come with 10 but you only play one per game. This has the unfortunate side effect of setting a timer on the replayability of the game to something near 10 play sessions. It might be a few more or a few less depending on how fun one scenario is or how similar scenarios are. One of the best ways to add replayability to a game is to have two or more elements of the game be mixed in different combinations. This can be done at random or through player choices.

Example: This was done in Small World with the combinations of unique asymmetric Races and Powers.

Board Game Artificial Intelligence (BG-AI)

This extends far beyond the scope of this article and is a deep, very interesting topic. For our purposes, let’s just say that it is the automatic way that the board game rules and mechanics operate without directed player choice. It is an absolute must, to have a good BG-AI in any game that hopes to have an engaging player vs. environment style of play. If done right the players will feel like the game is out to get them and that it knows what they are trying to do.

Uncertain Outcome

This means that the players should feel like there is still a chance to win, even on the last turn when they lose. Or you could say that they feel like they are going to win right up to the point that it all goes south because of the traitor that was in their midst, and then they lose. If they do manage to win it should only ever be by the skin of their teeth, in this style of game at least. Co-op games that telegraph who will win three or four turns from the end of the game become almost pointless to finish and they leave the players without any way to truly savor the victory.

Note: This is a great time to bring up the fact that player elimination while very realistic has fallen out of favor with board game players and designers. Video game still let players die and then respawn into the game, many times only a little worse for the wear. Board game design has started to adopt this mechanic, and as a designer so should you.

The Three Parts (you need to get right)

1. Adding the player role

This may seem very easy and straightforward to you, and it is reality easy to make the role card. The role within the game is a little more tricky, as you need to craft the reason why one player is the traitor. This informs the player’s motivations for why they really are “the hero of their own story”. Many of the best villains in storytelling are convinced that while their actions are evil, they are necessary for the greater good. The remainder of wonderful villains and traitors are just crazy, and that works too.


Design Tip: This role is normally dealt to the players before the first turn of the game begins. An interesting curve ball would be to have it hidden in a resource deck that players could draw into their hands at any random time, or even never in that one gameplay session. I think this would be a great mod for games with traitors.


2. Adding things that help to protect the traitor’s secret identity

Hidden information is your best design tool for this part, but it needs to be used in ways that make sense to the players within the theme of the game and the type of co-op player interactions are possible between. If all of the player characters are at the same general location in-game forcing too much hidden information on the players arbitrarily, just to protect the traitor, will break the type of emersion these game strive so hard to build. Another great way is to give the normal players some good reasons for not always acting in the best interest of the team. Self-interest is understandable to a point, but the more doubt you can spread around the better for the traitor.

It is also a good idea to make sure you think through whether finding the traitor’s identity is vital to winning the game. There is an argument to be made that if the traitor can remain hidden until the end they should be able to ruin things quite well. This is a hard line to walk as letting the traitor have enough power to ruin the whole game will spell almost certain doom every time.

3. Making and keeping the game fun to lose.

The best advice I can give here is to remind you that one of the largest factors to fun in a co-op game is the group of players. This sort of game is normally played by two types of groups. The first know each other well and most likely have played several co-op games before, and the other are groups that don’t know each other and are using the game to try and get to know one another.

Keeping that in mind, first, the game needs to be fun to play! If you can get that part down, win or lose most players will enjoy the game experience. One trick to keeping a game fun to lose is how the end happens. This ending should be made as memorable as possible and the traitor should have a hand in bringing things to an end. A lot of what is considered fun or not is based on something a designer has seemingly very little control over. Player perception determines what is fun and shaping these perceptions is done much the same way you would player motivations. If players can be made to think it is very hard for the traitor to bring them down, this can poke a hole in player perceptions of the victory chances. The longer you can make the players believe they have a chance to win the better. The hard part is you can’t just add a card that says; “Sorry, you lose.” and hope players don’t flip the table.


Design Tip: Having many ways to win a game makes it more dynamic, the same is true of having many ways to lose. Also, building a multi-layered scoring system can add suspense. When there are parts of scoring that remain a mystery until the end designers can make it feel like the game was all building up to this one final moment!


Summary

Before you run out and make the next big thing in the co-op traitor game style, remember to first go out and play some of the great games that already have this mechanic in them. Keep in mind that when searching for these games they will most likely be listed under either variable player powers or player roles mechanics. Also, know your target audience! Your theme can you narrow down who they might be. Players want to have fun with friends, and the best way to help them to stay friends is to just not use this in your games, ever. Again I am just mostly joking, sort of.


This is intended only as “Food for Thought”. Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.


“Remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!”

@BHFuturist 

“I want to help you embrace the bright hope for your future.”

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